A conversation with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey can be incredibly disorienting. Not because he's particularly clever or thought-provoking, but because he sounds like he should be. He takes long pauses before he speaks. He brooms his brow, setting you up for a considered response from the man many have called a genius. The words themselves sound like they should probably mean something too. Dorsey is just a little hard to assume that it is easy to assume that any confusion is your own fault, and that if you just listen a little more or think a bit harder, whatever he says will eventually start to make sense
Back in October, I sent a message to Dorsey to see if he would be willing to sit down for an interview. I did not really expect a response, partly because he'd just finished a media tour a few months before but mostly because his previous DMs looked like this:
Much to my surprise, he agreed.
Dorsey was busy in the time between my original ask and when we finally sat down together last week. Over the past few months, he was accused of hate mongering in India, accidentally ignored an ongoing genocide in Myanmar and was revealed to have consulted with far-right fringe figure Ali Akbar over the site's much-criticized decision this past August to not ban Alex Jones (Twitter did finally ban Jones a month later). We had a lot to discuss
My only real goal was to get Dorsey to speak in specifics, about anything. In almost every interview, he will lament his past mistakes and talk about his various high-minded visions for improving the platform: improving conversational health, reducing echo chambers, increasing transparency and about 10 other rote, buzzy phrases
But press him for a clear, unambiguous example of almost anything, and Dorsey shuts down. At one point, for example, Dorsey explained that Twitter was working toward machine learning to spot hatred before it's even reported. When asked how does Twitter handle the problem in the meantime, Dorsey had this to say:
Most of our priority right now in terms of health, which is the No. 1 priority of the company, is around being proactive. How do we remove the burden from the victims or thestanders from reporting in the first place? It's way too mechanical. It's way too much work. … But in the end, we want to make sure that the number of reports we receive is trending downward. And that will be because of two reasons. One, people are seeing far less abuse or harassment or other things that are against the terms of service. Or that we're more proactive about it. So we want to do both. So much of our work is that, then better prioritization in the meantime. A lot more transparency, clearer actions within the product
These are certainly words, though none of them appeared to answer my question. It took some more prodding before Dorsey finally pointed to a specific action
] Just, you know, finding the report button is not the most obvious and intuitive right now.
Making it more obvious?
Making it more obvious? I do not … I mean, I'm not going to … I do not know what it looks like right now, but we know what's wrong with it. So, you know, that's what we're working on.
In other words, most of the CEO of Twitter was able to tell me about specific steps being taken to solve the rampant, site-wide harassment problem that plagued the platform for years it is that they are looking into maybe making the report a little bigger, eventually.
Or consider later, when I asked if Trump tweeting an explicit call for murder would be grounds for removal. Just as he seemed to answer what seemed like an easy question, he caught himself. "That would be a violent threat," he began. "We'd definitely … You know we're in constant communication with all the governments around the world. We would surely talk about it. "
They would surely talk about it.
Similarly, Dorsey knows that he's supposed to say Twitter has made some mistakes in the past in terms of its priorities, but stops short of taking responsibility for the platform itself.
Dorsey's initial response was "we did not add that," before trying to explain it away as people "gaming the system." Twitter's algorithm promoting misinformation is not some grand manipulation of the platform, though. It's the platform doing what it was built for. It makes sense, then, that Dorsey finds himself unable to talk about specific solutions. How can you fix something when you are not sure what the actual problem is?
It seems clear that Twitter's current iteration, a machine learning-curated hell, is not the website Jack Dorsey wants. He just refuses to say what that site actually is.
The conversation has been slightly edited for grammar and clarity. And if you work at Twitter, feel free to get in touch.
First, I noticed you unfollowed me on Twitter in the past couple of months
Yes, you did. Was there a reason why this happened?
I, uh, was probably going through my list. I do not know why.
I do not know. I probably … I probably went through a bunch. You know, I always clean things up.
I see. Well, I want to talk a bit about some of the work you've been doing with the conservatives. Do you think there is any merit to their claim of bias against conservatives on Twitter? Basically I think it's conservatives.
Well, I think it would be easy to believe a perspective if you only look at particular things. And you look at actions based on who you follow and whatnot
Well, I mean, people follow people who violate our terms of service and who we take action on, and if you're only following those people and you're not following anyone else, you tend to see that and the perspective is strengthened. As I said in front of Congress, we make some mistakes where our algorithms can be super aggressive. But do we build bias into our systems? Well, it's not in our policies, it's not in our enforcement, and it's not in our algorithms. When we find it, we remove it. And that's a field of research that we need to continue investing in, bias in algorithms. So the main thing that we are focused on is how we stay transparent with our actions and continue to be impartial – not neutral, but impartial
Right. So it sounds like you're saying there's no inherent bias in the platform itself against conservatives, but you've done a lot to reach out to conservative groups. Are you just trying to mollify them? What's your ultimate goal
No, not at all. We did a lot of conversations with the folks in the media that we – that certainly I – have never talked to before. So in the past, we tend to stick with more of the financial press or the tech press. Both of which tend to be more on the other side of the spectrum. So, our default is probably going to that, so we do not inherently reach out to everyone and talk to everyone. One is having conversations, two are getting as much perspective as possible. To me, I think it's useful to hear a perspective, even if I do not believe it, just to hear what other people are saying. I value that, so I'm not going to stop. (19459013)
There was a Wall Street Journal article the other day that came out about it, but it's not an agenda to mitigate, it's an agenda to listen and hear, like, what's being said and why it's been said. you talk with Ali Akbar about the Alex Jones stuff. Did you consult him about it?
You know, during that time, I reached out to a bunch of people.
I'm not going to disclose, but as many people as I know that would have opinions on the issue. And I want to make sure that I'm seeing the whole spectrum. People who I know who would probably be more favorable to his situation, and those who are completely against it. And I want to hear everything in between. That's how you make good decisions, ultimately.
Well, Ali Akbar's had a series of tweets, I'm just going to read a couple of excerpts for you. "Anti-white comments from the Jewish anti-Trump commentator Bill Kristol." "Jake Tapper who is a Jewish left-leaning journalist." "The conservative Jewish publication The Daily Wire." He has a whole series of these, and he looks like and a very specific kind of figure to reach out to. (19459016)
I do not know what his comments are and his tendency to identify which members of the media are Jews? I listen, and I think that's the most important thing. I was introduced to him by a friend, and you know he's got interesting points. I do not obviously agree with most. But, I think the perspective is interesting
But do you think that by virtue of who you are and the fact that you, Jack Dorsey, are seeking input from this person, that he elevates him or validates his views
No, no. I mean, if I followed his direction, then surely.
Well, before you banned Alex Jones, you said, "We're going to hold Jones to the same standard we hold every account, not taking one-off actions to make "
Well, I think the conspiracy theory Well, I think the conspiracy theory
Oh, right, so general conspiracy theories about conservatives being targeted in media
Right, this is what I was referring to, in terms of all platforms working together.
But it seems like the desire to avoid fueling these was in the back of your head when thinking about these decisions. Is that accurate?
No. What I said was that there was an active conspiracy theory around all these companies working together. We want to state that we have a Terms of Service and we are going to follow it. Then when we find that we need to take action, we will take action.
I've also been asked to ask you a bit about the apology you made to Candace Owens a while back . You said, "Hi Candace, I would like to apologize for our labeling you" far-right. "The team completed a full review of how this was published and why we corrected it too late. pressed to find anyone who would say Candace Owens is not far-right, and I think she would agree with that if she was being honest. But even if you spoke that, getting an apology from the CEO of Twitter for something like this seems like an extraordinary step. I'm curious why you decided to intervene in this particular instance directly.
Well, I apologized because we generally should not be categorizing people. Our curation team should not use our descriptions to categorize people. We should be describing what happened. (19459013)
But I can not just describe the instances, but we would not be categorizing people ourselves
I I'm not saying it's a negative. I'm saying we should not do it, even if it was a positive one, we should not do it. We need to be descriptive as part of our curation guidelines, descriptive of what happened. Like, our entire role in this is to find the interesting tweets that show a story from all perspectives.
You do not even think of identifying someone as a journalist or an actor, just in terms of  That's a dilemma of what you said.
That's a profession. (19459013)
Does she self-proclaim that?
Does she self-proclaim that?
I do not know.
I do not know. When people self-proclaim something, we might be more open to using it, but generally we should avoid categorizing people, because we can be descriptive of the events
Alright, well a lot of people – myself included – were frustrated to see that because, for example, if someone tweets out our home address or phone number, it's a crapshoot as to whether or not Twitter is going to do anything about it
That's unacceptable , as well.
It should. But again, we are not in a great state right now with our systems because they rely on reporting. So we're not going to take any action unless it's reported. And then we take action, and we have a whole queue that we have to get through. We're moving into a world that's much more proactive by using machine learning. But that will have errors and mistakes. So we do not feel good about anyone being doxed, of course. We all know how much we can, but there are limitations to how much we can do
But what I'm saying is, people will very publicly share these instances when they happen, of Twitter saying their address is not violation of the policy. And I'm sure you've seen some of them before. So, why did Candace Owens' outrage about being labeled far-right to force you to address that so publicly, while others might not have
Well, we make other apologies, as well. But this was … You have to keep in mind, you know, someone doxing someone else on the platform and we miss it is a huge miss for us, and we should correct it as soon as possible. But we took something and broadcast it to everyone, everyone on the service, in a way that was against our guidelines. So, that's why.
While you're working on being more proactive about curbing hatred, there are still instances where it is reported and not acted upon.
So, I mean, a lot of our work right now is looking at the prioritization of the queues and making sure that, no. 1, we're protecting someone's physical safety as much as we can and understanding the offline ramifications of using our service. So that's work in flight. Most of our priorities right now in terms of health, which is the No. 1 priority of the company, is around being proactive. How do we remove the burden from the victims or thestanders from reporting in the first place? It's way too mechanical. It's way too much work. If people have to report, we should see it as a failure. If they have to mute and block that's another degree, it's a bit less. But ultimately, we want to make sure that the number of reports we receive is trending downward. And that will be because of two reasons. One, people are seeing far less abuse or harassment or other things that are against the terms of service. Or that we're more proactive about it. So we want to do both. So much of our work is that, then better prioritization in the meantime.
Just, you know, finding the report button isn 't the most obvious and intuitive right now.
But what's the alternative to that?
Making it more obvious? I do not … I mean, I'm not going to … I do not know what it looks like right now, but we know what's wrong with it.
So, you know, that's what we're working on
So It's this concept of conversational health. So it's what's pinned to my profile. We kicked off this initiative to first try to measure the health of conversation. And then second, as we build solutions around it, how do we tell if we're doing the right job?
But how do you qualify conversational health
] Well, it's in the thread. but I'll describe it as … We can measure the level of toxicity, for example, within a conversation. We can measure the level of perspective
Right, but how? What makes something toxic?
We have algorithms that can determine, based on the network, based on what people are doing elsewhere, based on the number of reports based on mutes and blocks, whether this is a conversation that you would like to stay in or you would like to walk away from. And that does not mean any direct action, but it can inform enforcement actions and whatnot, like when a human has to actually review. So toxic is one such metric, we call it receptivity. Like, are the members of the conversation receptive to each other? We have a variety of perspectives as an indicator. We have shared reality
How do you determine someone's perspective
Right, but I
Um, potentially. Right now we are just trying to determine what the indicators are. Like, temperature on your body – that indicates if you're sick or not, right? So if you were to apply the same concept to conversations, what are the indicators of a healthy conversation versus a toxic conversation? That's what we're trying to figure out. We made this whole thing with external researchers and RFP to get external help to determine these indicators.
In terms of Twitter itself, there has been a problem in the past. Most recently, when all these prominent Democrats were receiving homemade bombs, Twitter, in the related search terms, added "#falseflag" to the bomb scare. Things like this happen somewhat-
Well, that's a related hashtag, is not it?
Well, you did, because Twitter's algorithm picks it up. Is Twitter monitoring for when
Yeah, we're monitoring. We're monitoring it. If we see something like that, we … We'll act on it. But these are the algorithms. We need to constantly improve them and evolve them. They are not going to be perfect, right?
Is this all just reactive?
Oh, there's a bunch you do not see because we caught them. I would say probably the majority, but every now and then there is going to be a new vector that we have not trained our algorithms around.
But do you feel any sense of responsibility for amplifying this kind of misinformation? Because it's not just people saying something on the platform, it's the platform elevating whatever it is. And even if you catch most of them, there are still those that get through and that have very real consequences.
Yeah, I mean, we feel responsible when people play our system and take it out of it . (19459013)
Right, but I do not know if this is not a …
I mean, there's lots of people who genuinely believe this, who genuinely think and want people to know that it's a false flag, but they're not necessarily trying to coordinate. And then Twitter picks it up because that's what it's built to do, to pick up what people are talking about.
Right, yeah, we do. And we should. We know what we are talking about, but we need to be careful about what links we make and what we surface.
I know Twitter just introduced a new tool for transparency of political advertising in India , but there is still some sort of this question of what Twitter will do if politicians actively misuse the platform. (19459016)
Um, I do not know about the cases. We can … we can figure that out for you. But yeah, I mean, we're preparing for the Indian elections. It's going to be the biggest democratic election in the world. And Twitter is heavily used by the influents and politicians and the government in India, so we are very fortunate in that degree. And we want to make sure that we are doing what we can to ensure that we maintain the integrity of the conversation around the election.
Right. But what do you do when it's politicians that are promoting misinformation or-
So then is there something that, say, Donald Trump could do that would qualify as a misuse? Because I know the newsworthy aspect of it outweighs a lot of that.
Yeah, I mean, we've talked about this a lot so I'm not going to rehash it. We believe it's important that the world sees how global leaders think and how they act.
OK, but if Trump tweeted out asking any of his followers to kill a journalist, would you remove him
That would be a violent threat. We'd definitely … You know we're in constant communication with all the governments around the world.
OK, but if he did that, that would be ground to-
I'm not going to talk about particulars . We have established the protocol, it's transparent. It's out there for everyone to read. We have, independent of the U.S. President, we have conversations with all governments.
All right, well, I want to move on to some of the aftermath from your trip to Myanmar. Did you ever get a look at those tweets before they went out or was that just from you?
Were you surprised at all by how people reacted, or were you taken aback at all
Um .. . I mean, I think … I was not overly surprised. You know, my intention was to share my experience, period
In one of the tweets you said part of the meditation technique was to answer the question, "How do I stop suffering?"
Well, no, that was …
] Right. But do you realize how that sounds to be repeating that question and talking about ending suffering as Jack Dorsey, the billionaire, while the U.N. Is it calling for military officials in this country to be prosecuted for genocide? I'm just wondering if you see how your role is actually bigger than just yourself
I do, but I'm not gonna change the practice because of it and what people say. Like, this is the practice that Buddha has laid out, and I'm not going to change it just because I have this particular role. I am sharing what I practiced and what I experienced.
I guess what I'm asking is more … do you feel like you have more of a responsibility now, because of who you
Yes. I mean, I'd love to go back and really understand that dynamic. I went for one particular reason which was meditation. And that's what I was sharing, that one thing right. It was not to represent Twitter, or-
I realize that, but I'm also human. And this practice is good for me and helps me learn and grow. So that's what I was sharing, and surely act on all the feedback and everything that was going on.
In terms of the practice?
In terms of the practice? No.
In terms of practice, yeah, or how you discussed it when you came back
Yeah, I mean, , but I really wanted to focus the thread on what I experienced in the practice.
There was also another incident a few months ago in India where you got into some trouble for holding a poster that said "Smash Brahmanical Patriarch." A lot of people see these as a kind of institutional ignorance, or that Twitter does not really understand the responsibility of its role in the world. How do you respond to that?
Well, I think, you know, we are always learning more about our responsibility in the world. But that particular case where I was given a poster and then someone immediately said "Let's take a picture."
Sure, but because of, again, who are you, are you ever more careful about any kind of photo you're in because of your image could be used?
Well, obviously not. I mean, what do I do, do not accept anything from anyone? Not ever take pictures? I do not know. What's the solution?
I mean, that, I guess. But also, I know you talk a lot about trying to raise different perspectives in the platform.
Well, the biggest thing and I think we need to fight is filter bubbles and echo chambers. So, as an example, during Brexit, if you were to follow only Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage and all these other folks, you would only see tweets about reasons to leave. If you've been able to do something like that, then, if you did, you would have to leave 90%, but 10% would be reason to stay. In the current mechanics of the system, we do not allow that reality. We do not even allow different perspectives because you have to do the work to find the other accounts. So you could say, well, people could just go the hashtag. People do not do that. It's not easy for them, and they're just going to do what's easy. But we do not make it easy. So, that's one simple thing we could do to increase the amount and the variety perspective. Where, they may be, they follow the #voteleave tag, and they will be the reason to stay and that further emboldens them into leaving. Or it might be the case that they say, wait a minute, why are we doing this? We do not know.
On a different note, I think you were out of the country for this, but you were made aware that Laura Loomer (19459016)
Um … [laughter] I do not know.
Well, she was not fighting that hard, she only handcuffed herself to one of the doors.
I do not know the details but, um, yeah. I appreciate when people speak when they think that, you know, someone has done them wrong. Speaking to power is something that has flourished on our platform, and she believes we've done it wrong, and she took action. So, I respect that.
Now I remember why I unfollowed you!
Well, that's … Maybe half the time
But how is that going to help?
That's the question, though.
Are you a situation where you would just decide that it is better to be free of this? saying Twitter is a negative thing?
Well, that's what you're assuming when you say that.
What would you use if we deleted it?
I don't know, I'd have a lot more time on my hands.
What would you do with that time?
I really can't even begin to imagine.
I just … I don't think it's constructive. I’d rather hear constructive ideas on what we could fix. We get a lot of complaints. We get a lot of issues, and they’re all coming from a good place of good intent. But we have to dig under and figure out what the patterns are that we need to prioritize and fix. Because we can only do so much at once. So when somebody constantly tells me, “delete the site,” it’s just not helpful. Whereas other folks tell me, “Hey, you know if you do this one thing you would just have a massive impact.”
Well, deleting the site would have a massive impact — but that’s fine, we can agree to disagree. I know we’re running out of time, but I just have two more questions. I know there was a report recently that you mailed some of your beard hair to Azealia Banks. Did that happen?
That’s disappointing. And last, I’m just wondering, what use of your platform has horrified you the most, or that you didn’t expect the most?
I mean that we weren’t expecting any of the abuse and harassment, and just the ways that people have weaponized the platform. So, all that is horrible. And you know, we feel bad about that and we feel responsible about it. So that’s that’s what we intend to fix.